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Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema leaves the Democratic Party

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has left the Democratic Party. She made the announcement in a series of media interviews and in a video posted online earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYRSTEN SINEMA: Registering as an independent and showing up to work with the title of independent is a reflection of who I've always been.

CHANG: All right. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis joins us now to discuss the impact of Sinema's decision on the Senate and on her own political future. Hey, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so how did Sen. Sinema explain her decision to leave the Democratic Party and register as an independent?

DAVIS: Well, she said in a series of interviews that she's never really fit neatly into any party box. She said being an independent is more reflective of how she sees herself and also how she sees the state of Arizona. This is a state that's almost evenly divided between independent, Democratic and Republican voters. Now, she does vote with Democrats most of the time, but she's also tried to embrace this sort of maverick persona of the late Sen. John McCain, who preceded her in the Senate. She's also broken with the party on key issues. You know, she's opposed raising taxes on the wealthy. She's also opposed ending the filibuster to make it easier for Democrats to pass legislation in the Senate. But she didn't really articulate any substantive disagreements with the Democratic Party. She said it was really not about a protest of any issue or party agenda, but really just a rejection of the two-party power dynamic in Washington.

CHANG: Well, I mean, it is worth noting that Sinema hasn't even been a Democrat her whole career, right?

DAVIS: Yeah.

CHANG: Like, she started in politics as an activist associated with the Green Party, then registered as a Democrat before she ran for office. So what is this, like her third political affiliation in her political career? How are people responding to this latest swing?

DAVIS: She's a really unique figure in politics, both in how she's made decisions in Washington that have made her unpopular across the board, honestly, with a lot of her colleagues and also with a lot of the key constituencies back home. Extensive polling conducted by AARP over the summer put a really fine point on it. She is viewed unfavorably among Democrats, Republicans and independents in Arizona, not to mention among core constituencies within the Democratic Party - women, the college educated and Latinos. So I think that's really important context in understanding this decision today. It is not coming at a time of particular political strength for her.

CHANG: Right.

DAVIS: There's also been a growing effort in the Democratic Party to primary her in 2024. The response from the progressive left today was essentially good riddance, Senator. There's a very real chance she could not win a Democratic primary, so running as an independent could be her best and maybe only shot at securing another term if she's trying to cobble together sort of a centrist coalition. Another key point here, Sinema has not yet committed to running for reelection, and that decision could be affected by how her voters see this decision.

CHANG: Well, how are Republicans reacting right now? I mean, I imagine they see an opening here, right?

DAVIS: Oh, yeah. I mean, 2024 is already going to see a lot of Senate races in red states that are currently held by Democrats that are going to be very competitive in a national election year. Arizona, obviously a critical swing state. And this could make it a whole lot easier for Republicans to win if Sinema runs, a Democrat runs and they split the vote. And that's easier for a Republican candidate. So I think on the whole, this is very welcome news for Republicans.

CHANG: Well, after Raphael Warnock's win this week in Georgia, Democrats were on track to narrowly hold the Senate by a 51-49 majority in the next Congress. How does this move by Sinema affect that power dynamic, you think?

DAVIS: Not a ton. I mean, Sinema has already told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer she'll continue to caucus with Democrats for the purpose of organizing the Senate. That means she's going to keep her committee assignments. The balance of power stays the same. Both Schumer and the White House have issued friendly responses to this decision, saying President Biden plans to continue to work successfully with her. So there's no real effort to ostracize her for this decision from the party leaders. There's also already other independents who caucus with Democrats - Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine - so this is not entirely unprecedented.

CHANG: That as NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.